How To Play Against the 3-4-1 (9v9)

9v9 is one of the most exciting stages in the development of young players as it’s the first time they are truly able to understand tactics, positioning, formations and how to play to the strengths of their teammates. With so many different formations to choose from, 9v9 offers just as much flexibility and creativity for coaches as 11v11. But all 9v9 formations have limitations, gaps and disadvantages that can be exploited when played against correctly. In the next few weeks, TheMastermindSite will be taking a look at how to stop every single major 9v9 formation. In the latest article in this series, we discuss how to beat the 3-4-1.

3-4-1 SET-UP

The 3-4-1 incorporates three defenders, four midfielders (two central, two wide) and one lone striker. The formation is one of the most popular for 9v9 teams, because of its simplicity, balance and coachability. However, like all 9v9 formations, the 3-4-1 has quite a few weaknesses that can be exploited when done correctly.

where’s the gap?

The 3-4-1 formation is one of the more defensively compact 9v9 formations. As a result, there is no obvious gap to exploit on first glance. Teams looking to exploit the 3-4-1 when in possession should look to a few key areas of the field.

With three clearly defined lines of players, rather than more, such as in a 3-1-3-1, space in between the lines may be available to exploit.

Teams coming up against a 3-4-1 team should look to first and foremost, exploit the gap in between striker and central midfielders, and the gap in between central midfielders and the centre-back. The 3-4-1 formation is pretty well set up defensively to deal with most other areas of the field (in theory of course).

In order to exploit this space, teams coming up against a 3-4-1 should look to play with a clearly defined defensive midfielder and attacking midfielder. These players can easily operate in between the lines, break the lines through vertical passes, and carry the ball forward in between crucial gaps in the opposition. A 3-1-3-1 or 2-4-2 diamond formation will naturally offer this support, but perhaps a 2-1-4-1 will do even better, adding an extra attacking midfielder that operates in between the lines to exploit space. Coming up against a naturally defensive-minded formation in the 3-4-1, teams shouldn’t necessarily shy away from playing such an attack-minded formation like the 2-1-4-1 anyway.

be attack minded

The 3-4-1 can become overly defensive without the ball. It involves wingers pretty much on top of fullbacks, especially when done incorrectly – which is often the case for young players not really understanding their role. The striker can become isolated all on their own and as a result, a defensive midfielder who operates as the chief creator from deep can be the best weapon to exploiting space in the 3-4-1. But it needs to go beyond that. With two central midfielders, three defenders, and wingers hanging relatively low in comparison to a formation like 3-2-3, the 3-4-1 is very well set up to defend in most areas of the field. In fact it’s just about the only 9v9 formation without obvious gaps on paper. As a result, teams coming up against the 3-4-1 need to take an attack-minded approach.

In this example, we present a team playing 2-4-2 Diamond up against the 3-4-1. As we noted in the 3-2-3 article last month, the 2-4-2 Diamond is an excellent option for exploiting teams that play with a back-three. It offers both an attacking and defensive midfielder to exploit the space we’ve presented, while also offering a front two that can cause chaos by operating in between the gaps of the back-three. The fullbacks need to be partially occupied by the 2-4-2’s wingers or wide central midfielders, meaning they cannot focus entirely on the strikers. As the image presents, the 2-4-2 diamond has a lot of advantages in exploiting the space in the 3-4-1 formation. It’s not as though the wide players couldn’t tuck in alongside the central midfielders to make the field more narrow, but if they did, the 2-4-2 formation still has methods of exploiting space out wide or recycling play to their defensive midfielder or centre-backs to start again. Further, this formation can handle counter attacks well, with two centre-backs coming up against a lone striker + a defensive midfielder and usually inverted wide players who are not tasked with purely offensive roles.

In this example, we can see the advantages a 2-1-4-1 formation would have against the 3-4-1. The 2-1-4-1 completely overloads the midfield, while pushing the wingers higher in ways that make it very difficult for the 3-4-1’s fullbacks and wide players to tuck inside and stop the pressure of the midfield overload. The lone striker is perhaps the only disadvantage in comparison to the 2-4-2 Diamond, but one of the two attacking midfielders could easily help to add to that pressure on the back-line, if not both. Again, with a defensive midfielder and two centre-backs, this formation is also well set up to deal with counter attacks against the 3-4-1.

A final formation that we will present to play with an attack-minded approach and exploit space in between the lines of the 3-4-1 is the 3-2-1-2. The midfield trio in this formation is flipped from the 2-1-4-1, offering the team more options in build-up phases at driving, carrying or passing the ball forward into a key chance creator. Then the formation also offers a front two, for exploiting those key gaps in between the opposition back-three. Like the 2-4-2 Diamond, this set-up really complicates things for a back-three or even a back-two, as the attacking midfielder can frustrate the opposition’s ability to adequately mark and cover the two strikers. A back-three up against the 3-4-1 may seem unnecessary, but if the 3-4-1 team has pacey wide players who are exceptional at driving the ball forward and being dangerous in attacking areas, the back-three will likely be the best approach. But then going the other way, it offers a lot of verticality for breaking the lines and playing through the thirds that can allow a team much success against the 3-4-1 team.

so what formation to use?

Although all three of the options we presented could be great for playing against the 3-4-1, I am going to suggest that the 3-2-1-2 is the best formation to use up against a 3-4-1, as I think it can be for playing against a lot of formations. The formation is very narrow, while still offering width from fullbacks and even the front two if required. This narrowness will aid in the team’s ability to break the lines and exploit key gaps in central areas up against the 3-4-1. But when defending, the formation also offers great support to stop attacks from the wide areas and the striker, who can go player for player up against the front three. The two central midfielders/defensive midfielders in the 3-2-1-2 can also go player for player up against the 3-4-1’s central midfielders, easily covering that problem. Both the 2-4-2 Diamond and 2-1-4-1 can be extraordinary options, but wide players in attack might not be all that necessary when playing against a 3-4-1, in comparison to the obvious need for players who operate in between the lines and can do damage in central areas. This is the main reason why I have chosen to go with the 3-2-1-2 formation, as it offers so much for teams both in possession in utilizing central areas in between the lines, and then in defense, covering all major areas of the field.

key takeaways

When coming up against a 3-4-1 formation, consider the following elements for success…

  • Utilize a defensive midfielder and attacking midfielder who can exploit the gaps in between the lines, play through the thirds and carry the ball forward in central areas.
  • Overload the midfield, such as in a 3-2-1-2, 2-1-4-1 or 2-4-2 Diamond formation.
  • Utilize an attack-minded approach, even if it means sacrificing a defender for an extra midfielder or attacker.
  • Utilize the gaps in between the back-three, such as with a front two.
  • Width might not be required for success in attack, but might be required for success in defense depending on the talent of the 3-4-1’s wide players.

So there it is! The best ways to beat a 3-4-1 formation at the 9v9 level. Be sure to be back soon for a discussion about how to beat the 2-4-2. Also be sure to check out more of our 9v9 articles and share your thoughts on Twitter @mastermindsite or in the comments below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

More in this series…
-> How To Play Against the 3-2-3 (9v9)

You might also enjoy…
-> Coaching 9v9 Soccer – Ebook
-> Coaching the 3-2-3 (9v9)
-> Positions, Roles and Responsibilities in the 3-2-3 (9v9)


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